New Delhi: Where did India go wrong in its quest for strategic autonomy? This is a burden India took upon itself with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Non-Alignment. Examined from every conceivable geopolitical angle, whose details may be too sensitive to be openly discussed, Non-Alignment was a perfect fit for India. Indeed, it was the only course open for the country. Scrutinized from the perspective of over seven decades of independence, India’s stature in the world owes considerably to Nehru’s original vision. It was brought about by compulsions, to be sure. Nehru considered it disastrous to be entangled in the Cold War siding with one bloc against the other. The abysmal condition of Pakistan has vindicated him. Further, the parlous state of India’s economy, with little capital to deploy for nation-building, forced tough choices on Nehru which miraculously drove India to industrialization and food self-sufficiency. So what went wrong in the larger scheme of strategic autonomy and why is India still not fully or even substantially in control of its geopolitics?

The answer lies as much in the past as in the present. Jawaharlal Nehru got his geopolitical formula of Non-Alignment correct but privileged diplomacy over military strength in the early years of independence when a balance ought to have been struck between them. Rearmament, however, is budget breaking and compares nothing to the low costs of diplomacy. India needed all the money it could spare and some for nation-building. Yet, the neighbourhood wrecked India’s policy of peaceful coexistence with wars in 1947-48 and 1962 which left Nehru broken. Were they avoidable? Probably not. Kashmir was always a ticking bomb and the 1959 asylum to the Dalai Lama reduced war for the Chinese nationalists to a simple question of when. These tragic developments do not detract though from the fundamental soundness of Nehru’s Non-Alignment.

Indira Gandhi advanced Non-Alignment with more success because she covered the military gaps. Victory in 1971 and the 1974 nuclear test went on to make India a regional power but further progress was interrupted by the Emergency. When Mrs Gandhi returned to power, she was not the same. With her assassination and that of her son came decline and the scarring of the national psyche and sentiments only partly improved with P. V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh’s reforms. On the other hand, the Afghan crisis and the breakup of the Soviet Union brought enormous separatist pressure on two Indian border states, and managing and retrieving them expended considerable energies of the government which could otherwise have been employed in strengthening India’s strategic autonomy. India’s defence preparedness was also affected by disruptions in Russian arms supplies that followed the Soviet collapse. Since then, India has not focussed on strategic autonomy as a national philosophy, which has prevented the complete fruition of the 1998 nuclear test and the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Nations do often lose their way. The only solution is to go back to basics. In this case, India has to begin with Nehru’s vision of Non-Alignment. As the world enters a new Cold War, India has to refine Nehru’s strategies to fit the present. His emphasis on nation-building resonates with greater force today. He insisted on industrialization and a scientific temper. Without science and technology, manufacturing and innovation, India has no future. Rearmament was not possible for a country that was abjectly poor at independence. The 1991 reforms have set India on solid foundations but defence spending has to accept the reality that India is still poor. Therefore, privilege diplomacy where possible over the force of arms. The neighbourhood and the rest of the world will always intrude on India’s national contentment as it happened in Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. But if the country is clear about the goals and objectives of strategic autonomy, it cannot be diverted for long. India’s future lies in the past, and there could be no greater educator of it than Jawaharlal Nehru.